Can the immune system be harmed by a common food preservative?

Can the immune system be harmed by a common food preservative?
Food preservatives
A recent research looked into the relationship between food preservatives and the immune system.
  • A new research looked at the immune system’s response to chemical food additives and food contact substances.
  • The results of laboratory toxicology testing (ToxCast) were compared to knowledge from previous animal experiments and epidemiological research in this study.
  • The ToxCast results and available animal study data indicated that tert-Butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), a popular food preservative, may have a negative impact on immune system function.
  • To determine immune system toxicity and protect public safety, the study reaffirmed the need for updated studies and a comprehensive Food and Drug Administration (FDA) analysis of chemical food additives and food contact substances.

The immune system can be harmed by a variety of common chemicals, causing it to malfunction. Immunotoxicity is the name for this. These negative consequences may be temporary or permanent.

The following are examples of immunotoxic effects that may occur:

  • hypersensitivity
  • chronic inflammation
  • immunosuppression, or an impairment of the body’s ability to fight off infections
  • immunostimulation, which can cause tissue damage through immune responses
  • autoimmunity

If an immunotoxic agent causes the body to produce less antibodies, it may affect the body’s ability to combat current infections as well as its ability to defend against potential infections.

Food additives must now undergo immunotoxicity testing, as required by the FDA. However, most food additives have been approved for decades, and the FDA does not require updated testing on those that have already been approved.


TBHQ is a popular preservative used by manufacturers to increase the shelf life of their goods.

It can be found in nearly 1,250 processed foods, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), including Cheez-It crackers, Pop-Tarts, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Little Debbie Swiss Rolls.

However, animal tests have shown that this compound is immunotoxic.

Chemicals can also leach into food from packaging and food processing equipment. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are used to cover certain bags, boxes, and food wrappers (PFAS).

Nonstick cookware coatings, gaskets in food processing equipment, and repeat-use plastics all include PFAS-based materials.

Only food contact substances with a high daily exposure are needed to undergo immunotoxicity testing, according to FDA. Many food additives and food contact substances have unknown immunotoxicity.

In their ToxCast program, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses high-throughput in-vitro testing. To determine and detect any possible toxic effects, this method of research exposes living cells, proteins, or biological molecules to chemicals in a laboratory setting. Animal testing could be reduced as a result of this.

The EWG researchers decided to conduct a study to assess the immunotoxic effects of popular food additives and food contact substances due to the scarcity of current immunotoxicity evidence. They also looked at how well ToxCast data could be used to test for immunotoxicity.

Dr. Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG’s vice president for science investigations, and lead study author, emphasizes the importance of this research:

“The pandemic has brought environmental factors that can damage the immune system to the attention of the public and scientists. Chemicals that may damage the immune system’s protection against infection or cancer did not receive enough attention from public health authorities prior to the pandemic. This must improve in order to protect public health.”

The researchers looked at 63 direct food additives found on more than ten product labels sold in the United States between 2018 and 2020. They also looked at nine PFAS that have been described as migrating from food packaging to food.

The results have just been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The research looked at these compounds, focusing on the ones with the most successful ToxCast assays. It honed in on substances that operated on a number of immune-related targets and proteins involved in immune response, inflammation, and defense mechanisms.

The findings of the high-throughput ToxCast data were compared to data from animal and epidemiological studies.

Altered immune responses

Strong evidence from ToxCast research and immunological laboratory animal studies suggests that TBHQ can alter immune function.

ToxCast screening, on the other hand, generated data that did not always comply with previous data: there were instances where ToxCast data contradicted previous data or suggested threats that previous data had missed.

Three different situations happened with the food colorant FD&C Red 3 and PFAS such as perfluoroundecanoic acid (PFUnDA) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

The ToxCast data showed that FD&C Red 3 affected several immune parameters in the sample, but the researchers couldn’t find any animal or epidemiological studies on the food colorant’s immunotoxicity.

PFUnDA affected several immune parameters and increased the risk of immune suppression in ToxCast, laboratory animal, and human studies.

However, while animal and human research revealed immunosuppressive effects, the ToxCast data did not indicate strong activity for immune targets with PFOA.

The lack of accuracy in the results was due to a lack of understanding of the exact mechanism of PFAS toxicity, according to the report. It’s also conceivable that the failure of currently available high-throughput research to capture the full breadth of the potential mechanism for immunotoxicity played a role.

The researchers conclude that both ToxCast and study evidence indicate that chemicals like THBQ and PFAS, which are added to foods indirectly or directly, may have a negative impact on immune system function.

To protect public health and well-being, the FDA should prioritize and incorporate revised immunotoxicity testing to classify hazardous chemicals into routine safety assessments, according to the EWG.

Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the EWG, adds, “Food manufacturers have no incentive to change their formulas. Too often, the FDA [allow] the food and chemical industry to determine which ingredients are safe for consumption.”

“Our research demonstrates how important it is for the FDA to reexamine these ingredients and test all food chemicals for safety,”.